PI­LOTS WHO CRASHED INTO THE SEA

Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY NI­CHOLAS HUNE-BROWN

the post­card-blue sky 5,000 feet above the Pa­cific Ocean, 23-year-old pi­lot Syd­nie Ue­moto heard the sound—a sub­tle change in tim­bre as the en­gines be­gan to strain and rat­tle.

Her copi­lot, 26-year-old Dave McMa­hon, heard it too. Up to that point, the two-hour flight from Oahu to the is­land of Hawaii had been un­event­ful. They were just two young pi­lots, strangers to each other, look­ing for flight time and tak­ing a short trip with no pas­sen­gers. When they heard the sound, shortly af­ter three o’clock, McMa­hon brought the plane down to 3,500 feet, where the en­gines seemed to run more smoothly. Then, with­out warn­ing, the pi­lots lost power to the right en­gine. A mo­ment later, the left one went. Sit­ting in their metal com­part­ment high above the ocean, they heard what ev­ery pi­lot dreads: an eerie quiet. It took them a mo­ment to process the fact that they might crash.

The next few min­utes were a blur of ac­tiv­ity. As they be­gan to lose al­ti­tude, the pi­lots pow­ered through the items on the emer­gency check­list—turn­ing on fuel pumps, push­ing the throt­tles to full—which can some­times restart the en­gines. Noth­ing worked. Fol­low­ing their emer­gency train­ing to a T, McMa­hon handed the con­trols to Ue­moto and, fight­ing a rush of warm air, propped open the cock­pit door. Now they wouldn’t get trapped inside af­ter the ex­pected marine land­ing. At about 1,000 feet and fall­ing quickly, Ue­moto made their last dis­tress call. “We’re 25 miles north­west of Kona,” she said to air traf­fic con­trol. “We’re go­ing down.”

Ue­moto gripped the con­trols. In pi­lot school, they teach you about ditch­ing a plane, but you never ac­tu­ally prac­tice dump­ing your ride into the ocean. She knew the chances of sur­vival were slim. If she hit the wa­ter at too steep an an­gle, the force of the col­li­sion would kill them. If she al­lowed one wingtip to hit the wa­ter first, the plane could cart­wheel un­con­trol­lably and wrench the air­craft into pieces.

Just land as if you’re land­ing on the ground, Ue­moto told her­self. As the plane hur­tled to­ward the ocean, she forced her­self to imag­ine a run­way stretch­ing along the choppy sur­face of the wa­ter. The air roared in her ears as the ocean rose up to meet them. At the very last mo­ment, with the Pa­cific fill­ing her field of vi­sion, she pulled back on the yoke, nudg­ing the Apache’s nose up a lit­tle. Then ev­ery­thing flashed white as the plane made con­tact.

It struck the sur­face with an ex­plo­sive, shud­der­ing im­pact, wa­ter spray­ing over the wind­shield as the air­craft plunged into the ocean. McMa­hon and Ue­moto were thrown for­ward vi­o­lently, as if rear-ended by a trac­tor

trailer. In a daze, McMa­hon opened his eyes. He got his bear­ings and re­al­ized that he was, mirac­u­lously, OK. Ue­moto was slumped next to him, shocked and bleed­ing but still con­scious. Then McMa­hon felt the wa­ter pour­ing through the open door, and a new re­al­iza­tion hit him: They had to get out of there, fast. He un­buck­led his seat belt and climbed out onto the wing. “Syd­nie, get out!” McMa­hon called. She looked at him blearily. With her hands on the con­trols, Ue­moto hadn’t braced her­self for im­pact and had slammed for­ward, break­ing her nose.

She rose to her feet un­steadily and felt the blood pour­ing down her face, bait for the deadly sharks that prowl the wa­ters around Hawaii. “Get out!” McMa­hon called again. The wa­ter was knee-high inside the plane, and in mo­ments, she would be sub­merged. “What about the sharks?” she said. “You can’t think about that!” said McMa­hon. Ue­moto trudged through wa­ter to­ward the door, pick­ing up two life pre­servers along the way. By the time she’d climbed out onto the wing, the wa­ter was cov­er­ing the seats of the air­craft. As the plane sank, they jumped into the ocean. Within sec­onds, the plane dis­ap­peared be­neath the sur­face. The ocean had erased all

McMa­hon and Ue­moto swam through jel­ly­fish, the threat of sharks, and 16 miles of ex­haus­tion be­fore be­ing sighted.

signs of hu­man life ex­cept for the two small fig­ures bob­bing alone in the vast­ness of the Pa­cific.

As the waves broke around them, McMa­hon felt a strange sense of calm. He pulled the tab on his life pre­server. The seal hold­ing the CO2 car­tridge fell off, leav­ing a gap­ing hole in the now-use­less flap of plas­tic. But even that didn’t faze him. A laid-back Oahu na­tive, he had grown up in the wa­ter—surf­ing, ca­noe­ing, and spend­ing years on the swim team. He and Ue­moto had done the im­pos­si­ble by sur­viv­ing a crash land­ing into the ocean. It was a clear, beau­ti­ful day, and the Coast Guard knew where they were. Now they just had to stay put, tread­ing wa­ter in the warm sea un­til they were res­cued.

Ue­moto, how­ever, was a wreck— cry­ing and ter­ri­fied. McMa­hon tried to calm her, keep­ing the two of them

turned away from the waves and mak­ing small talk. “Tell me about your fam­ily,” he said. “Do you have any sib­lings?”

“I have a sis­ter,” she said be­tween gulps of air. Fam­ily was the rea­son Ue­moto had been on that flight. Just a few years into her ca­reer, the young pi­lot was in­tently fo­cused on work— tak­ing on as many flights as she could dur­ing the week and work­ing as a bag­gage han­dler for Hawai­ian Air­lines on week­ends. That night was Ue­moto’s father’s birth­day, but rather than take the whole day off, she had de­cided to work in the morn­ing and then rent a plane to fly home that af­ter­noon, get­ting in some of her re­quired hours be­hind the con­trols of a mul­ti­engine plane. When her orig­i­nal copi­lot couldn’t make it, McMa­hon, who also wanted to log time on a twin en­gine, agreed to join her.

“When will the Coast Guard get here?” Ue­moto asked.

“They’re com­ing,” McMa­hon said. “We’re just go­ing to float here.”

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours, McMa­hon’s pre­dic­tion seemed to come true. A Navy plane ap­peared in the sky, cir­cling the area. It flew di­rectly over­head as McMa­hon waved his life pre­server, over­joyed at the sight. And then, with­out any sign of recog­ni­tion, the plane con­tin­ued on its way. Sal­va­tion had ar­rived, then shock­ingly dis­ap­peared over the hori­zon. Over the next sev­eral hours, plane af­ter plane flew over­head, cir­cling in search of the lost pi­lots. Each time, McMa­hon and Ue­moto did what they could to be seen. And each time, the po­ten­tial res­cue plane con­tin­ued its flight with­out spot­ting them.

As the sun grew dim, McMa­hon’s calm be­gan to crack. He be­came scared. We’re go­ing to have to spend the night on the wa­ter, he thought. Ue­moto saw the fear on his face. She felt the cur­rent shift di­rec­tion, the waves mov­ing south­west now. A Hawai­ian na­tive, Ue­moto knew what all lo­cals know: There is noth­ing south of Hawaii un­til you hit Antarc­tica, 7,400 miles away. She and McMa­hon made the de­ci­sion quickly. They looked to the out­lines of the vol­ca­noes at Kailua-Kona, 25 miles away, and swam to­ward them.

By about ten that night, Ue­moto’s legs be­gan to cramp, so she swam with her arms, let­ting her legs drag be­hind her. Soon enough, McMa­hon was far­ing even worse. More than eight hours on the wa­ter had left him ex­hausted. He, too, cramped up and be­gan shiv­er­ing un­con­trol­lably in the breezy night air. While McMa­hon had been the one sup­port­ing Ue­moto those first few hours, she now took over. Swim­ming on her stom­ach, she had McMa­hon wrap his arms around her knees. He rested his head on the back of her legs while they swam in tan­dem—Ue­moto pulling the five-foot-six McMa­hon with her arms as he kicked. But even with that sup­port, it slowly dawned on him: If we keep go­ing like this, I’m go­ing to drown.

“Syd­nie, I need to stop,” he said. Ue­moto un­hooked her­self from McMa­hon, then faced him. In a des­per­ate at­tempt to find some way to help, she ex­am­ined his life pre­server and found it had two sep­a­rate air com­part­ments. Both sides were de­flated, but McMa­hon hadn’t tried the sec­ond CO2 car­tridge. She gen­tly tugged the tab, and that half of the vest filled with air. Then it started to leak, and the sec­ond CO2 car­tridge fell off. McMa­hon stuffed his fingers into the two holes where the CO2 car­tridges had ripped through the plas­tic, form­ing a seal. By ex­hal­ing each breath into the air tube, he found he could keep his vest in­flated on one side, pro­vid­ing just enough sup­port to keep him afloat. He wrapped his free hand around Ue­moto’s an­kle and rested, gath­er­ing his strength, while she pulled them to­ward the shore. “Just hang on to my an­kles,” she said.

As Ue­moto swam, hour af­ter hour, a feel­ing of calm came over her. The moon was bright, sparkling off the wa­ter and cast­ing its light on the dis­tant moun­tains. The two had be­gun as col­leagues who had never ex­changed a sen­tence, but in the quiet of the night, they had be­come part­ners. To be alone in the ocean was aw­ful and ter­ri­fy­ing. But to be with some­one else—to feel another per­son’s com­fort­ing pres­ence in the dark­ness— some­how made the or­deal bear­able.

“Hey, Dave?” Ue­moto said softly at one point. She hadn’t heard from him in a lit­tle bit.

“Hey, Syd­nie,” he called back.

“You do­ing good?” “I’m do­ing good.” It was while they were still in this po­si­tion, McMa­hon cling­ing to her legs, that Ue­moto felt a flash of ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain. She lifted up her arm. In the moon­light, she saw some­thing white and silky cling­ing to her fore­arm, com­ing off in goopy pieces. Jel­ly­fish. Within sec­onds, Hawai­ian box jel­ly­fish tox­ins can cause nau­sea, loss of con­scious­ness, mus­cle prob­lems, and dif­fi­culty breath­ing. And now, in her weak­ened state, Ue­moto was plow­ing through a swarm of them. Mo­ments af­ter the first sting, she felt the venom work its way through her body. Her heart felt as if it were beat­ing more slowly. She gasped for air as her body cramped up, each mus­cle clench­ing. Then she fell un­con­scious.

McMa­hon watched in hor­ror as Ue­moto seemed to fade be­fore his eyes.

“Syd­nie!” he yelled, des­per­ately tap­ping her face. She was out cold, her body trem­bling. McMa­hon clutched her to keep her head above the sur­face, tread­ing wa­ter and ig­nor­ing his cou­ple of stings. “Syd­nie, are you OK?” he said over and over again.

Ue­moto’s eyes flut­tered open. Her body re­laxed. “I think maybe we should just take a break,” she said weakly. They floated for a few min­utes. Then she said, “I am not hang­ing out with th­ese jel­ly­fish any­more.”

“Let’s get a move on,” McMa­hon said. He hooked him­self back onto her legs, and Ue­moto some­how found the strength to swim to­ward land once again.

When the sun rose that morn­ing, the two pi­lots were greeted by a beau­ti­ful sight— the is­land of Hawaii, green and ma­jes­tic, closer than they had dared dream. De­spite the jel­ly­fish and ex­haus­tion, they had made re­mark­able progress overnight.

Through­out the morn­ing, cute lit­tle black fish schooled be­neath them, ac­com­pa­ny­ing them on their jour­ney. In any other cir­cum­stance, Ue­moto thought, this would all be quite pleas­ant—the warm ocean wa­ter was so clear and blue, it felt as if you could see straight to the bot­tom.

Sud­denly, the cute black fish were gone, fright­ened off. Ue­moto saw a shadow in front of them that made her breath catch in her throat.

McMa­hon saw it, too—a shark, about ten feet be­neath the sur­face. “What do we do? What do we do?” Ue­moto asked, pan­icked. “Just keep look­ing for­ward,” said McMa­hon. “Don’t splash, and just keep swim­ming.” The shark cir­cled them me­thod­i­cally. The preda­tor was calm enough, McMa­hon told him­self, and was likely just cu­ri­ous. It cir­cled them for about 30 min­utes, then dis­ap­peared. Half an hour later, it was back. Now McMa­hon’s stom­ach dropped. We sur­vived a crash; we made it through the night, he thought. There’s no way this is go­ing to end with a shark at­tack.

“What are you go­ing to do if it comes close?” asked Ue­moto.

“I’m go­ing to kick it in the eye,” said McMa­hon evenly.

And then, as qui­etly as it had ap­peared, the shark swam off again, and Ue­moto and McMa­hon were alone once more. They were ten miles from shore now, the de­tails of the is­land com­ing into fo­cus. They made a pact:

They would be home by sun­set. “Do you want to go out to eat af­ter­wards?” Ue­moto joked. “McDon­ald’s?”

Just be­fore noon, they saw the fa­mil­iar or­ange shape of a Coast Guard he­li­copter. It whizzed over­head, just to their right, and the two of them waved their hands and tried to make them­selves vis­i­ble against the wa­ter. Just as be­fore, the air­craft dis­ap­peared— another ag­o­niz­ing near miss.

Af­ter al­most 20 hours, Ue­moto’s body was fi­nally done. She had sim­ply run out of power. At a cer­tain point, af­ter strug­gling for hours, your mind en­ter­tains an idea: What if I just gave up? She was reach­ing that point. Then Ue­moto heard the whir of the he­li­copter again. “It’s com­ing!” she shouted.

“This is it, Syd,” McMa­hon said. “This is the one God sent for us.” McMa­hon and Ue­moto waved fran­ti­cally. The he­li­copter flew over­head and then banked to­ward them. They’d been seen.

Ue­moto and McMa­hon burst into tears. They hugged in the wa­ter as the im­men­sity of what they had sur­vived sud­denly hit them. Alone, ei­ther of them would have died. But to­gether, they had made it. When one had been weak, the other had been strong. “You know, from not know­ing you at all, you kind of sur­passed all lev­els of friend­ship,” Ue­moto told McMa­hon.

A sec­ond he­li­copter ar­rived ten min­utes later, and a res­cuer low­ered him­self into the ocean. He was fol­lowed by a metal res­cue bas­ket that was teth­ered to the he­li­copter. The res­cuer guided Ue­moto into the bas­ket and, with a lurch, she rose into the air and to­ward the safety of the copter. Then it was McMa­hon’s turn.

Later—af­ter the res­cuers had fed McMa­hon ev­ery sand­wich they had in the he­li­copter, af­ter doc­tors had tended to Ue­moto’s bro­ken nose and jel­ly­fish stings, af­ter she fi­nally got to say happy birth­day to her father—McMa­hon and Ue­moto, who have re­mained close, would re­call an emo­tional turn­ing point. It oc­curred maybe 30 min­utes af­ter they’d crashed into the wa­ter. Ue­moto was pan­icked and teary, fear­ing the worst. McMa­hon be­gan to com­fort her, even though they’d known each other only a cou­ple of hours. “We’re go­ing to be good,” he had told her, though he had no idea what kind of jour­ney was in front of them. “This is a story we’re go­ing to tell our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY OLIVER KON­ING

Pi­lots Dave McMa­hon (left)

and Syd­nie Ue­moto had never met be­fore the flight that landed them

in the Pa­cific.

Ue­moto imag­ined a run­way stretch­ing along the choppy wa­ter’s

sur­face.

“Don’t splash, and just keep swim­ming,” McMa­hon said.

The shark cir­cled them.

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